Volunteers at Open Arms Care Center distribute bags and boxes of food and household necessities two days each week outside First Baptist Church of Riverhead. Photo: Denise Civiletti

The economic and social toll of the COVID-19 pandemic is nowhere more obvious than at the local food pantries who help feed Riverhead families in need.

Open Arms Care Center, which has operated a food pantry out of First Baptist Church of Riverhead on Northville Turnpike for 20 years, has seen demand increase “exponentially” since COVID struck, said Zona Stroy, the program’s chairperson for the past 15 years.

The number of households served by Open Arms grew from 968 in 2019 to 3,109 in 2020.

“I thought it would kind of level off,” Stroy said in an interview last week. Instead, the numbers continue to balloon. As of Sept. 4, Open Arms had served 4,000 households in 2021, she said.

“The demand is just outrageous,” Stroy said. “We’re only open two hours a day, two days a week,” she noted.

“There are a lot of first-time visitors,” Stroy said. “I do the numbers every month. Every person getting food fills out a sheet — it’s required by the government and the food banks,” she said.

Volunteers pack bags of groceries and line them up on tables outside the church, for distribution to residents at the drive-up pantry. Photo: Denise Civiletti

In 2020, in response to COVID, Open Arms became a drive-up distribution site, no longer allowing clients to enter the building to select items from the pantry’s shelves.

The drive-up distribution takes place on Wednesdays and Thursdays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. During its operating hours, the parking lot outside the church is abuzz with activity, as a half-dozen or so volunteers bring bags of canned goods outside from the pantry’s storage room in the church and add fresh produce and perishable items to the bags from pallets lined up along the sidewalk, then deliver the bags of groceries to people in waiting vehicles.

“We’ve been seeing 40 to 50 cars each day,” Stroy said. And even that number continues to rise. In recent weeks, the pantry has had nearly 80 cars in one day.

The number of people in need is both somewhat baffling and frightening, Stroy said. “I don’t know what it is, but I don’t think it’s a simple answer,” she said.

“There are a lot of people out of work,” Stroy said. People have been laid off, or stopped working for fear of the virus, she said. “There are also a lot of people who got COVID and haven’t quite recovered,” she said.

Stroy, a real estate agent who works on the South Fork, said she sees both ends of the economic spectrum. “I see a lot of people who have a lot of money buying houses in the Hamptons. And then I see a lot of people [coming to the pantry] who don’t have food to eat,” she said.

“I think the middle class is not middle class any more,” Stroy said. “It needs a lot of support and that’s not visible to most people.”

More than 2.4 million New Yorkers are “food insecure,” according to Long Island Cares, a food bank that supplies Open Arms Care Center — that’s one in four adults on Long Island, where about 259,000 people, including 79,000 children, don’t have enough to eat. More than 40% of food insecure people in Suffolk County are not eligible for nutrition assistance programs like SNAP. Nearly half of people receiving emergency food assistance are the “working poor,” households that have at least one employed adult, according to Long Island Cares.

“We’re going to keep meeting the need,” Stroy said.

Open Arms is an all-volunteer organization supported by donations, as well as by federal Community Development Block Grant funding distributed annually through the Town of Riverhead. Food banks, like Long Island Cares supply the bulk of the food that the pantry distributes to people in need.

Open Arms Care Center chairperson Zona Stroy at the food pantry drive-up last week. Photo: Denise Civiletti

Volunteers fill paper bags and cardboard boxes with food and household necessities, and distribute them to people who drive up to the pantry’s door at the church. On morning[In coronavirus crisis, food pantries face increased demand with depleted resources – RiverheadLOCAL]s when the pantry is operating, vehicles queue up at one of the driveways into the church parking lot in a line that extends out onto Northville Turnpike.

Open Arms’ most pressing need right now is for volunteers, Stroy said.

“We need people who can give a few hours,” Stroy said. It doesn’t have to be a big time commitment each week. It may be different hours every week.

“If you have one or two hours a week, there’s probably a way you can help a food pantry like Open Arms,” Stroy said.

“We need people that can pick up 25 or 30 pounds, people who can put cans in a bag and move a 10-pound bag from this shelf to that shelf,” she said.

People interested in volunteering to help can call Open Arms at 631-727-6943.

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Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor, attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.